Why plane cabins have barely changed in 50 years

Air France’s cabins haven’t changed much since the Seventies
Air France’s cabins haven’t changed much since the Seventies - Hulton Archive/Getty

Think of the first car you bought or rented. Now compare it to the first plane you boarded. Which looks more different? No contest. Your car today has far more comfortable seats. There’s so much tech in it that your dashboard looks like a spaceship. You might have a glass roof and the surfaces – leather, fabric, carbon fibre – are light years ahead of the scratchy cloth and cheap plastics of old.

As these two black-and-white pictures (above and below) confirm, give or take a few improvements – seatback screens, better lighting, windows you can dim electronically – there is very little difference between plane cabins in the 1970s and what we get today. The seats are still arranged the same way – with even less legroom – and the luggage still goes in the overhead bins. The toilets remain cramped, the armrests are almost identical and the drinks trolleys still rattle down the aisle on rickety wheels.

Why has there been so little progress? Did airlines really find the perfect formula 50 years ago – or have they forgotten how to innovate?

A Pan Am flight attendant serving champagne on a Boeing 747
A Pan Am flight attendant serving champagne on a Boeing 747 - Tim Graham/Getty

The reason for the “sameness” is money. Back in the 1970s when the world began to fly long haul thanks to the introduction of the Boeing 747, airlines were flush with cash. Qantas and Pan-Am could afford to devote the entire upper deck of their jumbo jets to large bars and lounge areas, each with bespoke designs and furniture. In the 1980s, Virgin Atlantic, always a restless innovator, introduced on-board spas. In economy-class cabins, airlines even had fun experimenting with orange and green seats. Now seats are almost always blue or grey, and spas and most bars have gone.

Since the 1990s, the rise of budget carriers and the need for greener aircraft have meant airlines and aircraft manufacturers have focused on saving money, not on design. Investment has been about making planes as light as possible. Walk around the vast Boeing factory just outside Seattle or the Airbus HQ in Toulouse and you’ll see that most new modern twin-engine jets are made of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic composites, not metal. Composites are more expensive than metal but weigh a lot less. Huge sums have also been invested in new lean-burn engines. Fuel is airlines’ biggest single cost.

Henry Harteveldt of travel-industry research firm Atmosphere says: “An aircraft cabin has a finite amount of space. Design is a Tetris-like task. Smaller and fewer lavatories mean more space for seats. Reducing legroom also means carriers can squeeze in more seats, further reducing the per-seat operating cost and allowing them to offer lower fares.” It is telling that only the deep-pocketed Gulf carriers have taken big gambles on their jets. Emirates and Etihad have introduced showers and bars on their Airbus A380s. Qatar has a bar on its superjumbos.

Qantas A350 cabin
‘We have pushed and pushed and done innovative things in terms of materials,’ says cabin designer David Caon - Qantas

Manufacturers have not helped to encourage innovation, explains David Caon, the most innovative airline cabin designer working right now, who has revamped Qantas’s cabins. “Design for aerospace is a complex ecosystem with a lot of safety, certification, testing and weight issues. This means aircraft interior manufacturers tend to do things in a certain way, with certain materials. You’re not given a lot of options.”

But he adds: “We have different ideas. We have pushed and pushed and done innovative things in terms of materials, going outside the catalogue, much to Airbus’s chagrin. When we turn up they’re like: ‘Oh, no! It’s Caon and Qantas again. What do they want now?’”

The effort is worth it. Qantas’s new jets are a breath of fresh air. “Most of the time you get on a plane and it looks like a plane. I do not want the cabins to look like they are in a plane. I want them to look more like you’re at home,” Caon tells me as we walk around his Sydney studio on one of those early summer days when you wonder why anyone would want to get on a jet and leave Australia at all.

Qantas A350 cabin
‘Qantas’s new jets are a breath of fresh air,’ writes John Arlidge - Qantas

He shows me the cabins for “the flying kangaroo’s” new Airbus A350 jets that will soon fly 21 hours non-stop from London and New York to Sydney and Melbourne. Fabric seat covers in all classes help to create a homely feel and, he adds, “it performs better than leather because it breathes, which helps to maintain constant body temperature.”

The six first-class suites have a reclining seat, a separate two-metre-long bed, a wardrobe with hanging rail, dining table for up to three people, and a 33-inch TV. What looks like European oak wood (it’s fake but you’d never know) wraps around the wall and door, making it feel warm and organic.

Seatside stowage for hand luggage means that Caon has been able to do away with all overhead bins. He has also dispensed with overhead bins in the centre of the business-class cabin, creating a “cathedral-like” ceiling. Many business-class suites have so many dials and switches they look like the Starship Enterprise but “since all in-seat controls are black, we’ve blended them into the black surfaces to reduce visual clutter,” Caon says. “I want everything to create visual calm.”

Qantas A350's first-class suites
The A350’s first-class suites have a reclining seat, a two-metre-long bed, a wardrobe with hanging rail and a dining table - Qantas

The premium-economy seat has a more pronounced wingback chair to give more visual privacy. He is also refining “a new special pillow that integrates with the headrest and becomes part of the seat”, which he will repeat in economy.

Premium economy and economy travellers will also be able to use a small exercise and stretching area. “We’ve taken out 12 seats to create a Wellness Zone,” Caon says. “On flights of this length you will have to get up or you will get stiff. We need to give passengers a reason to move, a destination to go to.”

Sections of the wall will be upholstered, so passengers – there’s space for seven – can use them to lean against and stretch. There will be grab holds for arm exercises. Videos on wall-mounted TVs will suggest exercise routines.

We will have to wait until 2025 to fly on Caon’s “home in the sky”, because that’s when Qantas will begin its “straight shot” flights from London to Sydney, but after 50 years of torpor when it comes to aviation innovation, it should be worth the wait.